Hispanic or Latino and Middle Eastern or North African will be federal race categories

For the first time, Hispanic or Latino is listed as one race/ethnicity category and people of Middle Eastern or North African descent will have their own checkbox under new race and ethnicity standards adopted by the Biden administration.

Up to now, Hispanics had a two-part question for their identity: They were asked whether they were Hispanic or Latino and then asked to pick a race of white, Black, American Indian or some other race.

The change now uses one question for race and ethnicity and allows people to check as many as apply to their identity. Each category has subcategories with examples that may apply and room for those that may not be listed.

The addition of a Middle Eastern or North African, or MENA, identifier would allow 7 million to 8 million people to no longer have to identify as “white” or “other” on the census and other forms in which such data is collected.

The changes are only the second update by the federal government to categories for data about the American population. The update — the last was in 1997 — of standards used by the federal government for the census and other agencies is meant to better capture the expanding multicultural identity of the country.

“These updated standards are going to help us create more useful, accurate and up-to-date federal data on race and ethnicity,” said an official with the Office of Management and Budget, who spoke to reporters Tuesday on the condition that the person not be identified.

“And these revisions will enhance our ability to compare information and data across federal agencies and also understand again how our federal programs are serving a diverse America,” the official said.

The changes were effective Thursday, and agencies have 18 months to devise plans for complying and then up to five years to put those plans in place, though some are likely to do so sooner, the OMB said.

The newest standards reflect results from the 2020 census that showed that most Hispanics did not identify their race as white, Black or Asian and instead were more likely to choose “some other race” on the decennial survey or to check “two or more races.”

Research showed that the two-part question is confusing and that since 1980, nonresponse to the race question has increased, the OMB said in an explanation of its recommendations. On the 2020 census, 4 in 10 Hispanics, or 42%, marked “some other race. A third selected two or more racial groups, and 20% chose white as their race, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.

The two new categories will have subcategories; the ones listed for Hispanic or Latino are “Mexican, Puerto Rican, Salvadoran, Cuban, Dominican, Guatemalan and other Central or South American or Spanish culture or origin.”

Arturo Vargas, chief executive officer of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, praised the revised standards, calling them “long overdue and critical step toward ensuring our nation collects the most complete and accurate data possible on the Latino community.”

But he also expressed concern that “OMB is being very prescriptive in how to ask the question” about race by designating subcategories and “not allowing for flexibility to reflect new research and improve questions in the short term.”

He said there is a need to signal to Latinos who may, for example, identify as Black or African that they should mark that box, as well.

For the Middle Eastern or North African category, the subcategories are listed as “Lebanese, Iranian, Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi, Israeli etc.”

Labels considered derogatory and racist, such as “Negro” and “Far East,” were eliminated. Asian is now defined as “individuals with origins in any of the original peoples of Central or East Asia, Southeast Asia or South Asia, including, for example, Chinese, Asian Indian, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese.”

Black or African American now includes people with origins in Africa, including “for example African American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Ethiopian and Somali.”

The new standards also remove the use of “majority” and “minority” as descriptors of specific groups.

Some in the Afro Latino or Black Latino population had raised concerns that the combined question would dilute their visibility.

After the new race categories were announced, the Afro-Latino Coalition said a statement: “By listing Latino ethnicity as co-equal with racial categories, Latinos are inaccurately portrayed as a population without racial differences, despite all the research showing how Black Latinos are treated differently from other Latinos.”

The OMB said its research showed Afro Latino populations estimates were slightly higher with a combined race/ethnicity question that also provides detailed checkboxes and write-in fields. But the working group recommended more research into the issue because about half of Afro Latinos interviewed during research for the update chose only Hispanic or Latino on a combined question, even though they selected the Hispanic or Latino and Black or African American categories when they were recruited for the interviews.

Although the standards are intended for federal agencies, the effect goes beyond that realm. Many researchers, local and state governments and nonprofit groups follow the standards, which also shape policy and affect representation in government through redistricting and, in some ways, societal perspectives.

The revisions were developed by a working group made up of career staff members from 35 agencies, which received more than 20,000 comments after first recommending the changes in January 2023, according to the OMB. The working group held 94 “listening sessions,” three virtual town halls and a tribal consultation about its proposed revisions, the agency said.

In addition, the OMB said it is creating the Interagency Committee on Race and Ethnicity Statistical Standards to continue research, because the process of updating the standards “showed that racial and ethnic identities, concepts and data needs continue to evolve.”

Along with researching and capturing accurate data about Afro Latinos, it will also consider collecting data about descendants of people enslaved in the U.S., among other topics. The OMB said groups consulted on identification of descendants of slaves did not agree on whether or how to collect the information.

The others race and ethnicity categories are American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Middle Eastern or North African, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and White.

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